Who doesn’t love Crush from Finding Nemo? If this fun-loving Hanu is one of your favorite underwater characters, you’ll be glad to know sea turtles play a massive role in Hawaiian culture. They’re one of the few species from ancient myths and legends that are still around for us to appreciate today.
Once you know all about them and their history in Hawaii, we guarantee you’ll be booking a trip just to see the turtles up close.
The Life of a Hawaiian Sea Turtle
Sea turtles have been around for over 150 million years, meaning they lived to see the dinosaurs arrive on Earth and eventually go extinct. Most prefer to spend their lives roaming the ocean, but females come ashore to lay their eggs. Certain species like to bask on the coastline.
All sea turtles start as a little egg about the size of a ping pong ball. Once the mother lays the eggs, they incubate for around sixty days before they hatch into the world. Baby sea turtles are called “hatchlings,” and they typically emerge from the nest at night and find their way into the ocean.
The Journey of a Hatchling
As much as we want to imagine little baby sea turtles roaming the ocean in pure bliss, life can be pretty hard for hatchlings. On their journey from the shoreline to the sea, they are easy prey for many different things.
- sea birds
Once they’ve entered the ocean, they face more challenges such as sharks, fish, and humans. Sadly, scientists estimate that only one out of every 5,000 hatchlings will reach adulthood.
The earlier years of a turtle’s life are typically spent in the open ocean, away from the high-density waters and vicious predators. Baby turtles will spend the first seven to ten years of their life roaming the sea, eating and growing as fast as possible.
Sea turtles born in Hawaii will eventually return to the protected shoreline areas of the Hawaiian archipelago to enjoy the rest of their lives.
Sea turtles live a long life, similar to the lifespan of humans. They usually don’t reach sexual maturity until about twenty or thirty years old.
Scientists were able to estimate their lifespan and growth through a methodology called “skeletochronology.” It is the only way to determine age, so there’s no sure way to tell how old a living sea turtle is. Plus, their size is determined by their diet and health, not their age.
What Types of Sea Turtles Live in Hawaii?
While you’re in the ocean scouring for shark teeth, fossils, and the ocean’s beautiful creatures, you’re bound to spot a sea turtle or two. Sea turtles have a magical charm that’s alive and well, just waiting for you to visit.
Tourists love visiting Maui, Hawaii, to see them every year.
Hawaiian sea turtles are born in several varieties, some of which include:
1. Leatherback Turtles of Hawaii
Leatherbacks are some of the rarest, most unique turtles to spot in Hawaii. Of course, sightings are super rare since they tend to live in a deepwater habitat, but if you’re a deep diver, you might luck out. They visit the Hawaiian Islands during migration between their nesting sites in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea.
What Do They Look Like?
Their distinctive feature is the fact that they’re the only sea turtle without a hard shell. They have a large, elongated, and flexible carapace that features seven distinct ridges. The carapace appears black or dark grey with white or pale spots. They get their name from the rubbery look of their skin.
Where Can They Be Found?
Because they travel far and wide, leatherbacks learn to become excellent navigators, accomplished divers, and survivors of an ever-changing environment.
Although they’re an incredibly strong species, their population has started to decline. From both a local level and internationally, conservation efforts are fighting to keep them thriving in the ocean.
2. Green Sea Turtles in Hawaiian Culture
Green sea turtles are the most common of the three native species in Hawaii. Hawaiians refer to this turtle as “Honu.” The Honu has been a significant symbol in Hawaiian culture for as long as they have lived on the islands. Today, tourists and locals alike often find them nesting in underwater ledges, snacking on algae, and getting their tan on at the beach.
What Do They Look Like?
Funnily enough, green sea turtles actually aren’t green on the outside. They coined the name from their internal fat tissue color, which is green due to their algae-heavy diet. Their shells can be a blend of multiple different colors, including brown, gray, black, or olive.
The average shell of an adult Honu is about four to five feet long. Their average weight is 250 pounds, but some grow to a whopping 500. That’s pretty huge compared to their size in the early stages of life!
They usually cruise the Maui reefs at their own relaxed pace, but they can reach about twenty miles an hour when they get scared or threatened. When they’re not feeding and resting in the ocean, they make their way to select beaches.
Where Can They Be Found?
Green sea turtles visit the shore to conserve their swimming energy and warm up their body temperature. Typically, they only make their way to beaches in Hawaii, Australia, and the Galapagos Islands.
The most important thing to note if you’re eager to spot these incredible creatures next time you’re in Hawaii is to keep your distance from them. Since they’re an endangered species, it’s our duty as humans to protect them and help them remain a preserved part of Hawaiian culture.
So, if you spot one, admire it from at least fifteen feet away. If you just can’t resist snapping a photo of the majestic creature, make sure your flash isn’t on first.
3. Hawksbill Turtles in Hawaii
Although they’re one of the less common species among Hawaiian turtles, Hawksbill turtles contribute a ton to Hawaiian culture. Through their diet of sea sponges, found in the coral gardens of Hawaii, they can help local ecology. The hawksbill’s acquired taste for the plant helps maintain a good balance in the environment where other reptiles and fish can thrive.
What Do They Look Like?
Hawksbill turtles are famous for their pointed beak that looks like a hawk’s, hence the name. They use this unique beak to do things like extract food from the crevices of coral reefs.
What Do They Eat?
Some of their favorite snacks, besides sea sponges, are squid, jellyfish, marine algae, sea urchins, fish, and smaller turtles. However, they’ll only treat themselves to a turtle that is four feet or less and two hundred pounds.
Where Can They Be Found?
These turtles live exclusively in the main Hawaiian Islands. Nesting occurs on most of the Main Hawaiian Islands, but over 90% of their nesting activity has been recorded on the Ka’u coastline of Hawaii Island.
Just like the Honu, Hawksbill turtles nest every two to seven years and lay between one to five clutches (the total number of eggs laid, usually around 180) per nesting season.
Sadly, Hawksbill turtles are a critically endangered species throughout most of their range in Hawaii. People still harvest them in several places around the world for their incredible shells, which they use to make decorations and jewelry. Sometimes, their nests are even poached for eggs.
Luckily, many people volunteer to help protect the future of this turtle species.
Green Sea Turtle vs. Hawksbill: How to Spot the Difference
Believe it or not, it can be pretty tricky to tell green sea turtles and hawksbills apart if you don’t know their distinct features. If you spot a turtle during your scuba dive and want to know what kind it is, check out its head and jaw. Hawksbills tend to have a smaller head than green sea turtles. Plus, their special jaws are pretty easy to distinguish from other turtles.
While your attention is still focused on the head, count the number of scales between their eyes. Hawksbills have two pairs of prefrontal scales, while sea turtles only have one. The shell of each turtle also differs. On a hawksbill, you’ll notice that the scales overlap. Greens don’t have overlapping scales, and their carapace edges are smooth.
During your turtle investigation, it’s essential to keep in mind that the vast majority, meaning 99.99%, of the sea turtles you’ll see diving and snorkeling on Maui are greens. If you get lucky and spot a hawksbill, be sure to snap a photo (without flash, of course). You can submit your pic to www.Hihawksbills.org.
The Significance of Sea Turtles in Hawaiian Culture
Sea turtles are beautiful and majestic, but there’s more to them than their gorgeous aesthetic. To Hawaiians, the Honu have been sacred creatures throughout history. Locals believe that they embody protection, endurance, good luck, and a long, healthy life. We’re sure you’ll feel that same energy if you ever dive into the Hawaiian waters.
The remarkable thing about these creatures is that they’re relatively easy to find in Hawaii. Seeing them in their natural habitat is an uplifting experience, whether you spot them in the water or basking in the sun on the beach.
Myths and Legends of the Honu in Hawaiian Culture
There are a variety of myths and legends surrounding the Honu. There’s a myth that the majestic creature led the original Hawaiian people to the islands.
Some tales reveal that the Honu are guardian spirits that chose to take the form of a sea turtle. This symbolism is taken very seriously in Hawaiian culture, as people call upon the sea turtle when they need protection from enemies and other hardships.
Many legends in Hawaiian culture surround the ancient gods. The god Kanaloa would take the form of a Honu when they needed to be among humans. Other stories tell of a green turtle, Kailua, who took the shape of a young girl to watch over the children of Hawaii.
Hula and the Honu
If you’ve ever been to Hawaii or even just dreamed of being in the presence of the incredible Hawaiian culture, you have probably seen their wonderful tradition of hula dancing. There is a specific hula dance that was made to represent the turtle’s movements as it digs sand and creates a safe place to lay eggs. In addition to being honored in the dance, it’s mentioned in the ancient Hawaiian chant of creation.
Even though the honoring of sea turtles dates back to ancient times, they are just as important in Hawaiian culture today. Now, you can find countless symbols of the Honu throughout Hawaii and even bring the energy back home with you.
Many of the souvenirs you find in Hawaii will be covered in Honu symbolism, whether you go for a fun t-shirt or a colorful lei.
If a trip to Hawaii isn’t on your calendar, you can find some adorable soapstone turtles on our site and bring the energy of Hawaiian culture to your home without having to leave it.
The Endangerment of Sea Turtles
As mentioned before, these beautiful creatures are facing danger in Hawaii. While the Hawaiian culture supports preserving sea turtles and keeping them safe, not everyone is on board with this message.
Even though they’re naturally resilient to the toxins in the food they consume, their most significant danger is human intervention.
When tourists enter the animals’ habitat without knowing how to keep it safe, they can end up damaging it. For example, tourists and other well-meaning sea explorers have damaged coral gardens, which is a constant threat to the turtles’ food source.
Save the Turtles
If you’re concerned about this issue, there are things you can do to help! In addition to being a safe and responsible visitor of their home (which we will fill you in on later), you can donate to the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. This organization works tirelessly to address the dilemma of endangered species on the islands.
Another practical and straightforward way you can work to keep turtles safe is by wearing reef-safe sunscreen. Some of the chemicals in regular sunscreen can damage the coral reefs, which throws off their habitat and food source. Sunscreen is an easy and affordable fix if you’re worried about messing with the turtles.
How to Safely Admire Sea Turtles in Hawaiian Culture
We don’t mean to alarm you by discussing the dangers sea turtles are currently facing. Don’t avoid them or run the other way. If you see one, you can still appreciate their contribution to Hawaiian culture. Just be sure to keep fifteen feet of distance between you and the turtle, whether you spot it in the water or on land.1. Don’t Touch the Sea Turtles
If you spot one during a swim, please don’t try to touch it! Remember to keep your arms at your side and keep your safe distance.
2. Keep Your Distance
Since the turtles need to come up to the ocean’s surface for air, you must make sure not to hover over them for an extended period. If they don’t feel safe to swim to the surface, they could eventually lose their breath and drown.
3. Do Nothing to Alarm Them
We know all our incredible readers would never do anything to hurt or bother a sea turtle purposely. However, if a good conscience isn’t enough to keep someone from harassing them, the $100,000 fine should be a strong deterrent.
Harassing or harming sea turtles in any way is illegal in the state of Hawaii. Violators could even face jail time for bringing harm to the endangered population.
The most important thing to remember about sea turtles is their significant impact on Hawaiian culture. Now that you’re aware of their sacred nature, it’ll be a treat to see them roaming in their habitat. So, keep your fifteen feet of distance, and enjoy the beautiful sea turtles and their rich Hawaiian culture.